Although machines take over more and more tasks or provide assistance in more and more segments, proper human workforce is irreplaceable. For this very reason, special attention should be paid to reduce the workload of physical workers.
“Yeah, I feel like Superman” – said a user smilingly after he tried out the Ekso Bionics mechanical suit, which is in use in the Ford assembly plants as well.
“It feels very stable. I am not really using my shoulder at all. I could hold this for a while” added another tester in the video available at youtube.
The essence of this tool is that an exoskeleton is fastened on the back, shoulders and arms of a worker which is powered by accumulators. It assists the workers in lifting up their arms for each necessary movement as well as heavy burdens. (This tool is also used by the military and in healthcare. In the military it is used to ease the soldiers from heavy burdens, while in the latter segment it aids the movement of post-stroke patients.)
This “Robocop costume” provides 6,8-kilogram lift assistance per arm, and if we take into consideration that according to a US statistics average line workers lift their arms over their shoulder 4600 times a day – this type of movement greatly increases fatigue, different kinds of muscle pain and may lead to injuries, therefore close attention should be paid – then this means that this tool provides 62 560 kilograms of assistance a day. Counting with 20 workdays per month the load decreases by 1 251 200 kilograms and if we multiply this number by 12, in a basic 48-workweek-year more than in the aggregate, the tool aids by lifting more than 15 tons (15 014 400kg) of wight for each worker with the use of this tool!
Small changes, that have to be done
“So this …(tool) is not gonna replace the humans” emphasized Marty Smats, the head of production ergonomics division at Ford. This is a very important piece of information for every worker, because it is their common fear that robots once might completely displace human labor in the near future from different plants, hence millions of workers would lose their jobs.
“I believe that humans in the assembly plants that drive the quality you’re seeing in our vehicles” stepped up Marty Smats for the importance of human labor
“The augmented human is always going to be better than the human or the robot. What humans are capable of in term of detecting small changes that have to be done on the assembly plant floor in real time. That’s a very critical piece of the puzzle.”
The words of the director of the production ergonomics department is greatly accentuated, they perfectly exemplify the importance of creating the proper connection between man and machine in different plants. The other key factors, beside the tool facilitating human labor, are machine safety and ergonomics. Probably, these are more important, because this 6000 US dollar tool is not yet a mass-product, but growing number of plants have opportunity for the proper ergonomic design of machines and to create human-machine connection which takes all aspects into account.
During the design in this case, two basic aspects have to be considered: to reduce the risks of musculoskeletal disorders and the safe use of machines.
Let’s start with health, because we all know that labor loss is a serious problem. In case of a Hungary based plant, Audi, employing 11 thousand workers, for example approximately one-fifth of its yearly revenue falls out due to work accidents and other absenteeism.
The law on the establishment of jobs stipulates that ergonomic aspects should also be taken into account in the design, installation and organization of workplaces, work equipment. The employer is responsible for the realization of ergonomics and ergonomic aspects in the relationship matrix between the work equipment, the work environment and the employee.
In respect of musculoskeletal disorders, the minimum health and safety requirements of manual handling are closely linked to this topic, which includes general and individual factors, in addition to employers' obligations to the increased risk of back, waist and lumbar injuries.
Machines can only be used, if they do not risk health, suitable for safe working, and furthermore, comply with the directives on how to minimize the physical and psychological strain on workers operating the machines.
The different physical abilities and body sizes of the machine operators have to be taken into consideration. It is important to optimize the adequate space for movement, work rhythm, processing requiring long-term concentration, as well as human-machine interface adjustment in accordance with the characteristics of the machine operators. If all these have been well considered in a given facility, then inconvenience resulting from physical load, the risk of injury and mental fatigue resulting from psychological burden can be significantly reduced.
By doing this the workers’ comfort will greatly improved. in the robotized environment. Besides taking body size into account, ergonomic standards also regulate acoustic signals and temperature.
Complying with the different standards is not only important during the design of the workplace, but they already have to be considered when designing the machines. Hence, with the production of the proper machines and their appropriate usage (some of the) musculoskeletal injuries and diseases could be eliminated. Another important standard is that the factories should make a risk analysis about the frequently done, repetitive activities, as well as their possible reduction, making them more acceptable.
The number of errors can be significantly reduced
Another important aspect is the safe use of machines. Fortunately, nowadays there are many standard ergonomic methods available, including those, which help to learn about the user behavior, the anticipated behavior, including the mapping of operator mistakes.
This is important because, in spite of the proper ergonomic design, it is impossible to exclude the possibility of human error. Indeed, in about eighty percent of the cases a human factor related problem is responsible for the accidents, but - and here let’s get back to the proper machines and the proper working environment – in the minority of the cases the operators made a mistake. A significant proportion of problems can be attributed to the design of the machine, building its protection, documentation, planning, management and maintenance.
The situation is clear then: we can do the most to ease the working conditions of workers working in a robotized environment, if the people are working with the proper machines, in a proper working environment, with adequate information given to perform their tasks. If all these conditions are given, we have already done a lot to preserve their health condition, their satisfaction as well as increased their productivity.
And then it is time to talk about the right ergonomic design.